By Tracy Cabrera
IN what is said to be a first in the long history of the Tour de France, this year’s winner wore a bright yellow-colored face mask to match the color of his iconic jersey while standing on the podium to receive his victory.
Despite the continuing onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, the premier cycling tournament pushed through and at least a winner has been declared.
Three weeks ago, when 21-year-old Slovenian Tadej Pogacar set off with 175 other competitors that he ended up beating, not even race organizers were sure they would make it through the storm of France’s worsening coronavirus epidemic and reach Paris.
“Really, I was scared we wouldn’t get to the end,” race director Christian Prudhomme conceded at the finish.
And so it was that Pogacar, up there on that podium, backlit by the pink hues of a Paris dusk, not only became the Tour’s youngest champion in 116 years but also a symbol of resilience, of can-do, of learning to live with—but not surrendering to—the virus still causing so much pain.
Sure, it all felt weird, as so many things do these days. Example: Pogacar’s mask puffed in and out, like an octopus glued to his face, as he sang the anthem of his native Slovenia, played in his honor.
But so liberating and invigorating, too, was the rumble of the riders’ wheels hammering over the cobblestones of Paris’ Champs-Elysees—so much alive, like heartbeats, on the famous boulevard that during lockdown just months ago was deserted.
The applause from the roadside crowds that, when they were all confined indoors, cheered only for doctors and nurses, coming out on their balconies each night to yell “Bravo!”
In towns and villages across France, that word has been heard again, over and over, these past weeks—this time for the Tour’s riders as they zoomed past in a kaleidoscope of colored jerseys, the yellow one most prized of all.
For Pogacar, the future now looks brighter than ever with his victory on the eve of his 22nd birthday and the way he went about it during 3,482 kilometers (2,164 miles) of racing—with an intoxicating mix of youthful insouciance and steely grit—transformed him from prodigy into cycling superstar, a Tour rookie so talented he KO’d the race on his first attempt.
He is Slovenia’s first winner and the Tour’s second-youngest behind Henri Cornet, who was just shy of 20 when he was crowned in 1904.
Pogacar sealed the win in a high-drama time trial on Saturday, the last real day of racing for the title. In an astounding reversal, he dethroned race leader Primoz Roglic, his countryman who had held the yellow jersey for 11 days.
On the podium, Pogacar’s mask hid his smiles, but the creases around his eyes gave them away.
“This is just the top of the top. It’s been an amazing three-week adventure,” he enthused.
One of the pandemic-defying Tour’s most enthusiastic backers was also its most powerful: French president Emmanuel Macron. With his government trying to revive France’s Covid-battered economy, Macron praised the race as “the pride of the country” and an example of how it must learn to live with the virus and the restrictions it imposes.
“Even in September, the Tour de France is magic!” Macron tweeted after Pogacar’s demolition of his archrival Primoz Roglic in the time trial.